P.E.I. men who died on the same plane during WW II honoured with new monument
Bob Gates and Cyril Sutherland were among 23 men killed when a Royal Air Force plane was shot down
Two Island families say they're grateful to see the names of their loved ones on a permanent monument recently unveiled at a Second World War crash site in Germany.
Frederick (Bob) Gates and Cyril Sutherland of P.E.I. were among 23 men killed when a Royal Air Force Douglas C-47 plane was shot down by the Germans in 1944.
In recent years, a group of historians has been working to uncover details of the crash and recover artifacts from the site in Neulingen, in southern Germany. In September, a ceremony was held to establish a permanent memorial.
"I'm really glad they recognized him like that,'' said Lloyd Gates, a veteran whose brother Bob was on the flight. "They should be recognized."
Members of the Canadian, British and German military were among the 100 people who attended the event — as well as descendants of the men killed and the sons of the German pilot who shot down the plane. The procession to the site included military vehicles from the 1940s and a bagpiper.
There were speeches, and a fly-by by three military aircraft performing the "missing man" formation.
After the unveiling of the memorial marker, which includes the story of the crash as well as the names and photos of all those who died, the Last Post was played.
Later, participants had a chance to view artifacts from the crash at a nearby museum, and step inside a preserved 1943 Dakota C-47 plane.
"I'd have liked to have gone myself," said Gates, who is 96. He said his daughter and a cousin had planned to attend in person, but cancelled their plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ceremony itself was cancelled twice due to COVID-19, but was finally able to go ahead this fall with people who couldn't attend following along online.
"I'm glad they did it because, you know, it's been in the works now for a couple of years," said Gates.
'The eyes got a little bit watery'
Angela Johnston-Villard, a niece of Cyril Sutherland, had also planned to attend in person along with 17 other family members from across Canada.
Her plans were also derailed by the pandemic, but she and her siblings watched the ceremony live online, from different parts of the country.
"The eyes got a little bit watery," said Johnston-Villard.
"I'm sitting by myself. It's five o'clock in the morning and I was up at four for it. And so I'm just sitting there by myself and you're getting into the mood of it because you wanted to be there. And I had Cyril's picture with me, and so now I was ready for the moment."
For years, Johnston-Villard said little was known about the crash, and that made it hard for her family to grieve.
"Uncle Cyril was always a piece of our past, and now he became … Today. It's current. This was a funeral we witnessed," said Johnston-Villard, who hopes to visit the memorial in person someday. "I think we got the closure that my other uncles and my grandmother did not get."
Grateful for Dutch man's role
Descendants of each of the victims received photos and videos from the event from Erik Wieman, the Dutch man living in Germany who was at the forefront of the excavation and memorial efforts.
Wieman got in touch with the Gates and Sutherland families a few years ago, when he uncovered the crash site. Since then, he's been in regular contact, sending updates about artifacts and the memorial ceremony.
"We just can't believe he came into our life and brought our uncle to us," said Johnston-Villard. "To me, he's a friend for life."
None of the 23 families knew that the crash site was here. None of them,— Erik Wieman
"We can't thank him enough for that because, you know, to do that is unbelievable," said Lloyd Gates, of the years that Erik Wieman has committed to unearthing crash sites, and helping connect families with answers to decades-old questions.
"It's a wonderful thing to do," said Gates. "To take on that project is really amazing."
Finding artifacts about closure
Wieman has for years been searching war-era crash sites with a metal detector. For him, it's about offering some closure to the families.
"When I walk and search in these fields… and I find things with names on it, things like that, or when you say, 'It must have belonged to the pilot, co-pilot,' and you see the families and you can give them something, you know, that's why I do it for," said Wieman.
Wieman was able to uncover airplane parts, seatbelts, coins, luggage and combs belonging to the men on board the 1944 flight. He also found three local people who witnessed the crash, and all of this helps paint a clearer picture of what happened.
He hopes the permanent memorial will help ensure the history of that Royal Air Force Douglas C-47 crash is never lost.
"Because most of the descendants, they do not know. None of the 23 families knew that the crash site was here. None of them," said Wieman.
"In 10 years, maybe we [will] have no eyewitnesses anymore, and it's very difficult to find these sites."
Other crash sites found too
Wieman has done the same with several crash sites, providing information to families and descendants he remains in touch with.
He's already started work on a nearby crash site, piecing together history to someday share with new families who are so grateful for the information he uncovers.
"It's an honour for me to honour these men," said Wieman.